A Simple Look at a Not-So-Simple Life

Archive for the tag “journals”

Dear Diary . . .

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.

Elizabeth D

I just finished reading Nichole Bernier’s debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. It is a novel about Kate, a woman who inherits her best friend’s trunk full of journals after her friend’s tragic and untimely death in a plane crash. Elizabeth wanted Kate to have the journals because “she would know what to do with them.” Kate spends the summer reading the journals, beginning when Elizabeth was just a child recovering from a family tragedy up to the present. She comes to realize how little she really knew about her friend, and maybe how little she really knows about anybody. After all, we are all guilty of carefully editing the parts of our stories that we share and of donning socially acceptable masks to wear in public.

As I read the novel, I kept remembering the prayer a Montreat workshop leader once shared:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, please throw my journals in the lake.

What do you do with your journals?

I started keeping journals at a young age. I only had one official diary. It had a plastic cover that was supposed to look like wood grain. And of course it had a lock. In it are my first recorded dreams of being a writer – just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, you know. I kept that diary for years and years, but I don’t remember seeing it anywhere in my last move, so it may be long gone. I kept other little notebooks, too. I remember a tiny Kaiser Fertilizer note pad that I used to take to my “hideaway” beside our house on Boulevard. It was a narrow strip of land, the brick house on one side, the neighbor’s shrub hedge on the other, and a cedar tree at either point. Those were my Harriet the Spy days. There wasn’t much to spy on at Mrs. Todd’s house next door, so I mainly made up stories about what could be happening over there to make life a little more interesting.

I have a stack of spiral notebook from my early years of teaching and marriage. I have a few more from the days when my marriage was bad. I quit journaling for a long time when I discovered that my ex-husband had taken one of my journals and made copies of it. That felt like the ultimate of betrayals. I wouldn’t write at all again for a long time.

I finally started writing again after we were separated and I was in therapy. It seems I was quite adept at telling my therapist what everybody else in my life thought and felt, but I didn’t have a clue about what I thought or felt about anything. A good therapist (and an author’s husband), he gave me a writing assignment. Spend at least 30 minutes completing these statements: “I think . . .” and “I feel. . .” The first few times I tried it, I threw the notebook across the room in frustration. Then one night I woke up at 3 a.m. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I turned on a lamp and picked up my notebook. I wrote nonstop for over three hours. Surprisingly enough, I thought and felt a lot of things once I allowed those thoughts and feelings to have a voice.

I kept up the journaling for years. Sometimes I used plain old notebooks. Sometimes I chose pretty journals. Sometimes I filled them up. Sometimes I wrote on only a few pages before starting a new one. I keep thinking there is a magic journal and a magic pen out there somewhere – the ones that will effortlessly fill pages with an astonishingly good novel or memoir. I haven’t found them yet, but I am still looking.


A sampling of some of my journals. My very favorite one ever is the angel journal on top. I filled every page in green ink. 

In December of 2004, I started blogging. Blogging has been a game-changer for me. At first I didn’t think anyone would read what I wrote. I thought it would be a lot like a regular journal, only online. I was shocked – and a little scared – when people did read it. And they responded! I wrote anonymously for years. Slowly I let the anonymity go. Finally, after much thought and fretting and nail-biting, this summer I went totally public. Church members, high school friends, cousins, parents, colleagues, and total strangers can read what I write and know exactly who wrote it. Amazingly scary. Amazingly exhilarating.

There is such a difference between journaling and blogging. I lost it when I discovered my ex-husband had taken, read, and copied my journal. Yet now I blog openly, where anyone who chooses can read. Of course, I edit myself more carefully here than I would in a private notebook. But there is more to it than just that.

In an interview with Dani Shapiro, Nichole Bernier had this to say about journals and blogs:

The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It’s a conversation with the best part of oneself.

Blogs can be many things — entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It’s the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.

I rarely journal anymore, although I keep a journal pretty close at hand almost always. Rather than recording emotions, personal experiences, and other typical stuff of journals, I’m much more likely to record quotes, jot down funny/poignant things I’ve heard or seen and don’t want to forget, or brainstorm lists and ideas. Sometimes I miss the old-fashioned journal, the candid photo of writing. Even so, the lake may be a good final destination for my journals one day!



“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, please throw my journals in the lake.”


I went rambling in my antique trunk the other night. It’s the first time I have done this since moving to Charleston 2 1/2 years ago. I’d forgotten about all the treasures I’d carefully wrapped and stored away inside: pictures, cards, letters, knick-knacks, kids’ drawings, diplomas, and journals.

Yes, journals – about a dozen of them spanning the years between 1987 and 2007. Some of them are cheap notebooks. Others are nicer journals. Only a few of them are filled from cover to cover. I love notebooks and journals. Even though most of my writing is done on a computer keyboard these days, I still buy them frequently – all shapes, sizes, and colors; some plain and some fancy. It’s like I believe that if I can just find the right journal the words will naturally flow out of me to fill it. Apparently I’ve yet to find the right journal.

It was an emotional experience to read through these old journals. I tend to write a lot when I’m hurt or confused. It’s my way of figuring out what I think and how I feel. Much of what is in these journals was written during times of personal turbulence and confusion, with a few happy stories and memories scattered in between the angst. I scanned quickly over pages written by me, the bewildered young wife who couldn’t figure out why her husband rejected her. I found a letter I wrote to Anna on the night before I was scheduled to go to the hospital to have my labor induced. I found the photocopied pages of one of my journals that my ex-husband made without telling me. I remember how I felt when I accidentally stumbled across them hidden in the back of a drawer. I couldn’t have felt any more angry or betrayed if he had taken covert pictures of me naked and printed them out. I read over pages written by me, the angry and now defiant young wife who was done with that marriage. I read pages written by me, the dreamer – literally – who faithfully recorded the most vivid, bizarre dreams that visited me often during that tumultuous period. I read pages written by me, the teacher/called to be preacher/wannabe writer, searching for a way to be the me I wanted to be. I read pages written by me, in love again, hurt again, alone again, yet always somehow hopeful that one day things would work out.

As I read my old journals, I wanted so much to be able to talk back to the younger me, to tell her things that the older, more experienced me now knows. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to shake her and tell her not to put up with the crap she put up with for far too long. I wanted to show her all the ways she was strong back then, even though all she could see at the time was her weakness and her alone-ness. I wanted to tell her to write not just when she is sad, but also when she is happy. I wanted to tell her to always listen to her dreams, for more often than not they are filled with the kind of wisdom we can only receive when our guard is down in sleep. I wanted to tell her that it’s okay to be a bitch sometimes, and that she doesn’t have to feel guilty about going after what she wants, and that the people who really matter in this life will love her even if she decides to go her own way and do her own thing rather than always being compliant. (They wouldn’t always like it, mind you, but they would always love her.) When she was upset about being written up for being insubordinate at work, I wanted to shout, “Hell yes, girl! It’s about time you stood up! And don’t you dare change a thing!” I wanted to thank her for writing down her story because her story does indeed matter.

After a couple of hours of reading, I tucked my journals away in the drawer by my bed – their new home that will make it easier for me to access them. As I closed the drawer it dawned on me that perhaps my older, more experienced self should listen to her own pep talks a little more often.

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